BERLIN 1961 by Frederick Kempe


Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
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A tale of missed opportunities just might have ended in nuclear war.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal editor Kempe (Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany, 1999, etc.) recounts a curious series of episodes in which the Russians appeared to be bearing olive branches, the Americans arrows. When John F. Kennedy came into office, Nikita Khrushchev made unexpectedly conciliatory gestures—for instance, he allowed Radio Free Europe to be broadcast behind the Iron Curtain, released American fliers who had been shot down while spying in Soviet airspace and even published Kennedy’s inaugural address in Pravda. Kennedy, however, mistrusted Khrushchev, who was “vacillating between his instinct for reform and better relations with the West and his habit of authoritarianism and confrontation.” Given this suspicion, Kennedy failed to encourage the Soviet leader’s good moments. Meanwhile, Khrushchev faced a difficult problem. He had defanged his most dangerous rival, Stalin-era secret policeman Lavrentiy Beria, but still faced considerable opposition from hardcore Stalinists—and competition from Mao’s China, which was jockeying for position as the world’s leading communist power. He was also embroiled in a bad situation in East Germany, which seemed in danger of collapsing in the wake of his post-Stalin reforms and which was serving as a gateway through which other Eastern Europeans could easily escape to the West. The climax of the difficult year 1961, as Kempe demonstrates, was the building of the Berlin Wall following one misreading of Soviet cues after another on the part of the Kennedy administration. In the end, Kennedy had to swallow his pride and accept the fact of the wall, which “had risen as he passively stood by.” That failure notwithstanding, Kempe concludes that, ultimately, Kennedy was able to regain advantage with his successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.

A bit too long, but good journalistic history in the tradition of William L. Shirer and Barbara Tuchman.


Pub Date: May 10th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15729-5
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2011


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